The Importance of Humanity in Negotiating

Charlotte Miller

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The Importance of Humanity in Negotiating

Every human at a negotiating table has feelings, moods, reactions, history, skills, and goals. They could even have priorities that differ slightly (or not so slightly) from the entity they’re representing in negotiations, making them a less engaged negotiator. Alternatively, someone’s entire career might hinge on a “home run” negotiation, leaving them less willing to accept anything outside of exactly what they’re demanding.

While a lot of modern negotiation training is based on high-level strategic concepts, being able to connect with other people on those intangible cultural and psychological wavelengths is no less crucial to successful negotiating.

Global Attitudes Regarding Negotiation

Today’s business climate is global. One of the best ways to be prepared for dealing with the human element of negotiating is to have an understanding of how negotiations are viewed around the world:

  • The United States. In the U.S. and other countries that have enjoyed relatively progressive, open societies for generations, confidence in negotiations is largely a direct factor of interpersonal trust. This sort of trust is a fluid concept; it will look different between any two parties and can be built or broken over time. The short- and long-term results of each negotiation will affect this trust positively or negatively, either undermining or reinforcing it. 
  • Japan. The Japanese business world is comparable to America’s in that Japanese businesspeople work long hours at stressful, demanding jobs. Also, like Americans, Japanese businessmen can expect significant compensation if they are successful. However, Japanese companies tend to celebrate group efforts. For this reason, negotiations in Japan are rarely a matter of two businessmen sitting down privately with their lawyers. A group dynamic brings different perspectives and priorities to the negotiation table, which is always valuable. 
  • India. In India and countries with similarly strict social norms and rigid class structures, people see negotiation somewhat differently. Behavior and attitudes in the Indian business world are shaped more by trust in institutions rather than interpersonal trust between the individuals representing those institutions. Strong institutions and social structures — and a high level of public faith in them — can essentially eliminate the need for interpersonal trust to factor into negotiations at all. This can make negotiations feel less personal and, in turn, less stressful and adversarial for those doing the negotiating.
  • China. Negotiations in China tend to be focused on everyone working together to create a mutually beneficial outcome, rather than two adversarial parties sparring to see who will concede the most. Building trust between both individuals and organizations is a key aspect of Chinese negotiation. Chinese businesspeople often appreciate thoughtfulness and manners. When a Chinese negotiator disagrees with you to the point of offense, they may simply refuse to continue engaging rather than embarrass you by explaining what you did wrong. On the other hand, if you disagree with your Chinese counterpart across the negotiation table, bring forth your concerns respectfully but clearly. Explain how you are reaching your conclusions and defining your side’s needs rather than simply swapping demands.
  • Germany. Business negotiations in Germany may feel somewhat familiar to “old school” American businessmen, as it’s a place where a firm handshake and a verbal promise still go a long way. German negotiators are known to be hard-nosed and ambitious and likely to feel good about taking a more competitive approach.
  • United Kingdom. Negotiating with British counterparts can be a mixed bag. Not only are there a variety of different cultures represented across the lands that make up the U.K., but there are also some cultural discrepancies. For example, most Brits are known not to be fond of haggling. In most British shops, retail items are marked with a final, non-negotiable price, just like in the United States. This is in contrast to many other European cultures where haggling is a crucial step in the process of commerce. 

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Personal Connections

Don’t get so caught up with a negotiator’s cultural background that you forget the whole point of the exercise — connecting to other human beings. Relying too much on your insight into someone else’s culture can be even more offensive than not bothering to learn about their culture at all. Be conscious of studying cultural differences without forming stereotypes or putting other people into unnecessary (and potentially problematic) boxes.

Remember that everyone is an individual. There is no law stating a German businessperson can’t negotiate in a more typically “Chinese” way — and there is also nothing stopping you from employing the ideas you’ve learned studying other cultures in your own negotiation tactics. Thorough negotiation training often involves looking at these cultural differences.

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Negotiation and Humanity in a Digital Age

Today, those who strive to approach negotiations from a humanist perspective face an entirely new hurdle: the ubiquity of remote conferencing technology. While you can certainly make genuine human connections over a Zoom call, it can be much more difficult to read people’s body language or subtle vocal cues on a phone or laptop versus speaking to them in person.

Going forward, we should expect emergent negotiation training techniques to address this new challenge. To build trust and meaningful relationships over a digital meeting platform, follow the same principles you would use in an in-person negotiation:

  • Give respect — and expect it in return.
  • Be honest about your needs and what you’re able to give.
  • Do not push boundaries to the point of damaging relationships or manipulate the other party into giving more than you initially asked for (i.e., don’t attempt to “move the goal posts” after your demands have been met).

Be a real person, but don’t take things personally.